Today, Oct.4, is the feast day of St. Francis. Almost 800 years ago he gave a sermon to the birds which began our long journey to include of all of Nature in our circle of concern. Don’t worry, I am not going to try to convert you or give a religious sermon, it’s just that Francis was a fascinating man whose impact is finally being felt. For example, he is the patron Saint of the Environment and today’s Pope Francis deliberately chose this name to make a point: those without power and wealth must be our primary focus of care. How they are treated is eventually how we will be treated. His Encyclical “Laudato Si” gives all Catholics the command to care for creation, to include all creation in their prayers and to realize that “salvation” [ie. who matters?] means everybody – “everybody” now includes every animal, plant, rock, and lake.
“Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home. A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
This “ah-ah” moment that Francis had to include all of creation within his sights happened right at the point in Francis’ life where Francis was struggling with a deep personal dilemma: Should he retire from the world and devote himself entirely to prayer or should he continue traveling about as a preacher of the gospel? The same question applies to you: should you retire from the crazy world into your bubble or engage as best you can?
In Francis’s case no sooner had he heard the response that he must engage in the world than he immediately stood up, took to the roads, where he encountered a flock of birds and preached to them as if they were endowed with reason saying:
“Oh birds, my brothers and sisters, you praise your Creator as I do. Could it be that both birds and men share equally in blessings from the God who created us both from the dust and breathed life into us? Could it be that Christ came to save you as much as he came to save men?”
You see, Francis was the first person in the West to see it in this the world in this “new way” – that salvation is for ALL creation. Thus, people are not more important than other created beings. Yes, we are more conscious and more powerful, however, that does give us power over creation, is gives us the great responsibility to care and nurture and respect this creation – and I do think that destroying species in the current 6th mass extinction is can be called care. Let’s make this a bit more concrete. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk residing in New Mexico, tells this story.
I recently learned that I would have to put down my 15 old black Lab because she was suffering from inoperable cancer. Venus had been giving me a knowing and profoundly accepting look for weeks, but I did not know how to read it. Deep down, I did not want to know. After her diagnosis, every time I looked at her, she gazed up at me with those same soft and fully permissive eyes, as if to say, “It is okay. You can let me go. I know it is my time.” But she patiently waited until I, too, was ready. In the weeks before she died, Venus somehow communicated to me that all sadness, whether cosmic, human, or canine, is one and the same. Somehow, her eyes were all eyes, human eyes, and the sadness she expressed was a divine and universal sadness.
When we carry our small suffering in solidarity with humanity’s one universal longing for deep union, it helps keep us from self-pity or self-preoccupation. We know that we are all in this together. It is just as hard for everybody else, and our healing is bound up in each other’s. Almost all people are carrying a great and secret hurt, even when they don’t know it. This realization softens the space around our overly defended hearts. It makes it hard to be cruel to anyone. It somehow makes us one—in a way that easy comfort and entertainment never can. Some mystics go so far as to say that individual suffering doesn’t exist at all and that there is only one suffering. It is all the same, and it is all the suffering of the World.
Perhaps we can learn to share in the suffering of others, help as much as we can, realizing that their suffering is our suffering.
It turns out, no surprise, that this way of seeing seems to converge with Aboriginal thinking in what our relationship with nature is. This is made clear in the writings of Grey Owl, an Englishman who, after suffering through WWI, spent his life as an Ojibway. He wrote about “the beaver people”; an Ojibway concept he learned from his Ojibway wife Anahari. In several books and during many public events during the 1930s, he was the first CDN to make the point that Nature had its own inherent value. It did not exist simply as a resource to be exploited, Nature had a being in and of itself that had intrinsic value – just as the life of every human being has intrinsic value – rich or poor, black or white – it doesn’t matter; all have the same rights and ability – if properly nurtured.
Perhaps you need a more emotional experience to ‘get it’. Here is a link to a short video of a man playing piano for elephants in an elephant sanctuary. It makes the same point I have been making in words in music – which speaks more directly to our hearts and, I hope, can move you in ways that mere words cannot.
I think the fact that it has 3.7 million hits tells you that this way of seeing animals is now resonating with people.
Could it be that a major cause for our fear, separation, hate and anger come from the wrong view that you and the Earth are two separate entities, that the Earth is only the environment? Try this: breathe in and be aware of your body and look deeply into it and realize you are the Earth and your consciousness is also the consciousness of the Earth. When Nature “laughs”, we laugh. When it “cries”, we cry. Today let us realize this reality and let it guide our every step. Help us to see that everyone is our neighbour; this includes the animals, plants, soil, water and air we breathe that keeps us alive.
My final thought is part of the prayer Canticle of the Creatures by St.Francis
Praised be you, with all your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
who is the day through whom you bring us light.
And he is lovely, shining with great splendor,
for he heralds you, Most High.
Praised be you, through Sister Moon and Stars.
In heaven you have formed them,
lightsome and precious and fair.
And praised be you, through Brother Wind, through
air and cloud, through calm
and every weather by which you sustain your creatures.
Praised be you,
through Sister Water,
so very useful and humble, precious and chaste.
Praised be you,
through Brother Fire,
by whom you light up the night, and he is
handsome and merry, robust and strong.
Praised be you,
through our Sister, Mother Earth,
who sustains us and directs us
bringing forth all kinds of fruits
and colored flowers and herbs.
Praised be you,
through those who forgive
and for your love.